Simile Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Nordquist, Richard. "Simile Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Apr. 25, 2017, thoughtco.com/simile-figure-of-speech-1692098. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 25). Simile Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/simile-figure-of-speech-1692098 Nordquist, Richard. "Simile Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/simile-figure-of-speech-1692098 (accessed September 24, 2017).
similes on screen
Four examples of similes. (Balavan/Getty Images)

A simile is a figure of speech in which two fundamentally unlike things are explicitly compared, usually in a phrase introduced by like or as.

"The simile sets two ideas side by side," said F.L. Lucas. "[I]n the metaphor they become superimposed" (Style).(The differences between similes and metaphors are considered in the observations below.)

In everyday conversations as well as in writing and formal speeches, we use similes to clarify ideas, create memorable images, and emphasize key points.

"In argument," wrote poet Matthew Prior, "similes are like songs in love: / They much describe; they nothing prove" ("Alma").

Etymology
From Latin, "likeness" or "comparison"

Examples

  • "When he lifted me up in his arms I felt I had left all my troubles on the floor beneath me like gigantic concrete shoes."
    (Anne Tyler, Earthly Possessions. Random House, 1977)
  • "Our last impression of her as she turned the corner was that smile, flung backward like a handful of flowers."
    (Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety, 1987)
  • "She dealt with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat."
    (James Joyce, "The Boarding House")
  • "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."
    (Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty in Blade Runner, 1982)
  • "Without warning, Lionel gave one of his tight little sneezes: it sounded like a bullet fired through a silencer."
    (Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)
  • "When Lee Mellon finished the apple he smacked his lips together like a pair of cymbals."
    (Richard Brautigan, A Confederate General From Big Sur, 1964)
  • “Her mind was like a balloon with static cling, attracting random ideas as they floated by.”
    (Jonathan Franzen, Purity. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015)
  • "Human kindness is like a defective tap: the first gush may be impressive, but the stream soon dries up."
    (P.D. James, Devices and Desires. Faber and Faber, 1989)
  • "Good coffee is like friendship: rich and warm and strong."
    (slogan of Pan-American Coffee Bureau)
  • "You know life, life is rather like opening a tin of sardines. We're all of us looking for the key."
    (Alan Bennett, Beyond the Fringe, 1960)

Observations on the Differences Between Similes and Metaphors

  • "Writers sometimes use similes and metaphors to help create a vivid image in the reader's mind. A simile compares two things using the word like or as.
    Simile: My father grumbles like a bear in the mornings.
    A metaphor also compares two things, but it does not use the word like or as.
    Metaphor: My father is a bear in the mornings.
    (English Language Arts Skills & Strategies: Level 8, Saddleback, 2005)
     
  • "The simile sets two ideas side by side; in the metaphor they become superimposed. It would seem natural to think that simile, being simpler, is older."
    (F.L. Lucas, Style. Macmillan, 1955)
  • "A simile is also a metaphor; for there is little difference: when the poet says, 'He rushed as a lion,' it is a simile, but 'The lion rushed' [with lion referring to a man] would be a metaphor; since both are brave, he used a metaphor [i.e., a simile] and spoke of Achilles as a lion. The simile is useful also in speech, but only occasionally, for it is poetic. [Similes] should be brought in like metaphors; for they are metaphors, differing in the form of expression."
    (Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book Three, Chapter 4. Translated by George A. Kennedy, Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Oxford University Press, 1991)
  • "Simile and Metaphor differ only in degree of stylistic refinement. The Simile, in which a comparison is made directly between two objects, belongs to an earlier stage of literary expression: it is the deliberate elaboration of a correspondence, often pursued for its own sake. But a Metaphor is the swift illumination of an equivalence. Two images, or an idea and an image, stand equal and opposite; clash together and respond significantly, surprising the reader with a sudden light."
    (Herbert Read, English Prose Style. Beacon, 1955)
  • "The relationship between simile and metaphor is close, metaphor often being defined as a condensed simile, that is, someone who runs like lightning can be called a lightning runner. Sometimes, simile and metaphor blend so well that the join is hard to find . . .."
    (Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford Univ. Press, 1992)
  • "Metaphor conveys a relationship between two things by using a word or words figuratively, not literally; that is, in a special sense which is different from the sense it has in the contexts noted by the dictionary.
    "By contrast, in simile, words are used literally, or 'normally.' This thing A is said to be 'like' that thing, B. The description given to A and to B is as accurate as literal words can make it, and the reader is confronted by a kind of fait accompli, where sense-impressions are often the final test of success. Thus 'my car is like a beetle' uses the words 'car' and 'beetle' literally, and the simile depends for its success on the literal--even visual--accuracy of the comparison."
    (Terence Hawkes, Metaphor. Methuen, 1972)

The Reader's Role in Deciphering Similes and Metaphors

"[A] simile tells us, in part, what a metaphor merely nudges us into thinking. . . .

"The view that the special meaning of a metaphor is identical with the literal meaning of a corresponding simile (however 'corresponding' is spelled out) should not be confused with the common theory that a metaphor is an elliptical simile. This theory makes no distinction in meaning between a metaphor and some related simile and does not provide any ground for speaking of figurative, metaphorical, or special meanings. . . .

"The simile says there is a likeness and leaves it to us to figure out some common feature or features; the metaphor does not explicitly assert a likeness, but if we accept it as a metaphor, we are again led to seek common features (not necessarily the same features the associated simile suggests . . .)."
(Donald Davidson, "What Metaphors Mean," in On Metaphor, ed. by Sheldon Sacks. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979)

The Naive Simile Theory and the Figurative Simile Theory

"Most theorists have thought that metaphor is somehow a matter of bringing out similarities between things or states of affairs. Donald Davidson [above] argues that this 'bringing out' is purely causal, and in no way linguistic; hearing the metaphor just somehow has the effect of making us see a similarity.

The Naive Simile Theory goes to the opposite extreme, having it that metaphors simply abbreviate explicit literal comparisons. Both views are easily seen to be inadequate. According to the Figurative Simile Theory, on the other hand, metaphors are short for similes themselves taken figuratively. This view avoids the three most obvious objections to the Naive Simile Theory, but not all the tough ones."
(William G. Lycan, Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2008)

Pronunciation: SIM-i-lee